From education to employment

FE News speaks to Mike Campbell

I very much welcome the report. Having worked in this field for fifteen odd years, I welcome its direction of travel and lots of the specifics.

The central thing for me is the scale of the challenge. One of the good things about this report is that it articulates very carefully the nature and scale of the challenge we face. What that means, is that centrally, we are much more ambitious in what we do in education and training in this country, and basically we”ve got to substantially raise our game to be competitive in the world economy as we move ahead. I think that is one very good thing about it, that we all, employers, individuals, and government, have got to take skills much more seriously than we do.

I long thought that the problems of the UK’s education and training system is not so much the individual bits of the jigsaw, but the way in which they are connected together; or more appropriately, the way they are not connected together. What this report does is bring a greater alignment between the many members.

The other great thing is that it is genuinely employer led. This has been the direction of travel under the government since 2001; to have a more demand-led and employer focused system. But whilst pieces of that have been put into place, like the Sector Skills Councils, I think a lot of it was rhetorical. The rhetoric had run ahead of the reality, and this now makes reality catch up with it. I think, for example, that it gives the SSCs much more responsibility and much greater power, and the new “Commission for Employment and Skills”, at the apex of the whole system, will make it truly employer led. For me, that is unambiguous, and the sensible thing to do.

The report may state the obvious to us who think that SSCs are a good thing; it may be obvious to those of us who think that you need to have a demand-led approach, so that provision matches the needs of the economy. But that is not how everybody sees it. And certainly, it is not how the policies and practices we currently engage with in the country are managed.

For example, taking England, the way post-16 education and training is handled is two-fold. Firstly, it is handled largely through the Learning and Skills Council, which essentially is both a funding body but also a planning body. One of the things Leitch says is simply, “don”t try and do that”. With the best intentions in the world, this is extremely bureaucratic, complex, and not necessarily right; you find that supply-side doesn”t actually meet employer’s needs.

It’s bureaucratic, doesn”t seem to work, and costs a lot of money. Instead, why don”t we trust people and employers and create more of a customer/citizen/employer led system and let the system be more responsive to that. That is reflected in government targets ““ this big adult target is the so-called Level 2 target.

That is laudable in itself, but so much activity is focused on that, and we know, through speaking endlessly with employers, that if you added up what all the employers in the world wanted end to end, that is not how it looks. It is only in a small number of sectors where the Level 2 agenda is relevant. In engineering for example, it is much more about Levels 3 and 4; in chemicals and oil & gas, nuclear processing and so forth, it is actually Levels 4 and 5. It is too blunt an instrument.

[The report] is much more of the same, but it is an argument that hasn”t been won yet. There have been moves in this direction, but I think this is a really radical shift not in the direction of travel, but in the scale of the ambition. The figures are quite extraordinary; in many cases you”re talking about doubling and trebling the movement of people at basic skills level, Level 2, Level 3, etc ““ this is an enormous challenge, but also an enormous opportunity.

Mike Campbell, Director of Development, Sector Skills Development Agency.

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